NANGALAM BASE, KUNAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN (USA TODAY)-- A former resistance fighter during the Soviet occupation of his country, Afghan Col. Turab Adil knows that Afghans can put up a good fight.
He recalls how in the 1980s the mujahedin, as they were known, slipped through the hills and valleys to drive out the Communist superpower and its attack helicopters, tanks and fully armed troops.
Today's Afghan army will fight just as ferociously against Taliban fighters, but Adil and others say it can't defeat them under the current U.S. military strategy that calls for the withdrawal of all combat forces by the end of 2014.
"When the coalition forces leave, there will be a lot of problems for us," Adil says in the halting English he learned at an Afghan university.
The U.S. military's exit strategy in Afghanistan is to maintain security now established in southern Afghanistan while shifting enough combat troops to the east to dismantle the Taliban there. A trained force of Afghans will be expected to keep the peace. But weeks of interviews with Afghan soldiers and U.S. troops on the battle lines in eastern Afghanistan cast doubts on that strategy. Recent Taliban attacks -- the latest on a major U.S. air base -- and insider "green-on-blue" shootings against coalition forces only amplify these doubts.
After almost 11 years of war and nearly 2,000 Americans dead, Ahmed Majidyar, an Afghanistan expert at the American Enterprise Institute, says Afghan security forces will not be self-sufficient, as the Pentagon hopes under the current scenario.
"Over the last few years there has been tremendous progress in the Afghan National Security Forces," he says. "But when it comes to logistics (supplies and support for Afghan troops), intelligence gathering and decision-making, they still need help."
Even so, the help will be diminishing at a critical moment in the counterinsurgency strategy as the coalition moves to dislodge Taliban strongholds in eastern Afghanistan. A withdrawal of 30,000 troops ordered by President Obama will be complete in October, reducing troop strength from a peak of nearly 103,000 last year to 68,000.
The military challenge presents just one of many problems in a country plagued by corruption and with a long history of frustrating foreign forces. Indeed, some experts suggest the job -- winning, however defined -- cannot be completed given the myriad hurdles and other issues, such as neighboring Pakistan's support for the insurgency.
The United States should "recognize the limits of its power," says George Friedman, who heads the private intelligence firm Stratfor and author of The Next Decade, a book that lays out where conflicts might occur.
"U.S. strategic interest in Afghanistan has been achieved. It's disrupted al-Qaeda in that country, and it needs to withdraw."
Two very different forces
Combat Outpost Kalagush is in Nuristan province in eastern Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan's Northwest Frontier, the one permanent U.S. base in the province.
Life here is not easy. To escape the scorching summer sun, Afghan soldiers often rest in the shade under barracks propped up on cinder blocks. Fresh water for drinking, cooking and bathing is sometimes scarce.
"We are Afghan. We can deal with all kinds of difficulties," says Col. Sher Khan, the new commander at Kalagush.
The Taliban bulked up its presence in the mountains here after U.S. troops withdrew years ago amid deadly attacks on two outposts that drew constant fire. The outpost is divided: U.S. forces are on one side and Afghans on the other. American soldiers have hot showers, good food and air-conditioned barracks. Afghan soldiers are cramped into metal storage containers turned into sleeping quarters.
On this day, U.S. adviser teams are training Afghan soldiers to take the lead in military operations. Capt. Marcus Morgan, an American adviser at Kalagush, sees progress. He says Afghan commanders have shown initiative and leadership in planning and executing missions, noting that Afghan forces sometimes patrol without U.S. backing.
"They are completely in the lead outside the wire," Morgan says.
But Afghans going it alone? That's another issue. "If they get into a firefight and can't handle it on their own, they can call on us."
In three months, no one will be there to answer. All U.S. troops at Kalagush are to leave the base by the end of the year.
Khan says what his men really will miss is U.S. firepower and aircraft, which he says may not be forthcoming under current withdrawal plans. They can handle the ground fighting, Khan says, but need the U.S. military to come to their aid when things get out of hand. If not, he says, they will likely be overwhelmed by attackers.
"Our soldiers are very well-trained, but we need the right weapons to defend this area," he says. "There are times we'll need to drop troops behind enemy lines, and we'll need air support."
Some in the international coalition suggest that an accommodation must be made eventually for the Taliban to share power with the U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai. But many Afghan soldiers do not see it that way.
The Taliban is a clerical movement that rose up during Afghan civil wars in the 1990s, and many current Afghan military officers remember life under its rule. A harsh brand of Islam was imposed on Afghans. Its adherents demanded men wear beards and denied schooling for women. Girls could be married off at age 9. Homosexuals faced the death penalty.
The Taliban banned music, alcohol and even kite flying. Those who disobeyed were subject to summary execution. Amnesty International and others condemned the Taliban's reign, but the regime was in little danger until it refused to turn over Osama bin Laden to the United States.
You can't whitewash it'
The Pentagon says its counterinsurgency strategy will succeed, and that the withdrawal of allied forces will not allow Afghanistan to once again become a base for the export of Islamic terrorism that it was under the Taliban.
"The stakes are very high," U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, said recently. "The fact that we were attacked on the 11th of September (2001) is a direct line relationship between what happened on that day and what could happen again if we don't get this right."
Recent Taliban attacks have provided fodder for critics of the Obama administration's position that the country has been sufficiently pacified to pave the way for an exit.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., complains that Obama is pulling out for political reasons and jeopardizing eventual victory against a potent enemy. Obama's Republican rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney, says the president was "misguided" for announcing a withdrawal date to the enemy.
The president defends today's strategy, arguing repeatedly that he is winding down the war "responsibly" and believes the Afghans can handle security themselves.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the green-on-blue attacks represent the "last gasp" of the Taliban. But Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the attacks spell trouble for U.S. aims.
"You can't whitewash it. We can't convince ourselves that we just have to work harder to get through it. Something has to change," Dempsey told Armed Forces Press Service on Sunday.
Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, does not see a "clear transition plan" to the Afghans that will work. He says the current strategy could give the Taliban an opening to take over and resume the kinds of terror activities that prompted the U.S.-led invasion.
"I think what you may see is a whole bunch of localized power struggles," Cordesman says. "Where it gets to be dangerous is when you have rival warlords with enough power to take over larger areas."
Defining a good day'
The eastern province of Khost is a haven of the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Muslim terror group that along with other militant groups aligned with the Taliban have been building forces here for years and in Paktika, Ghazni, Kunar and Wardak provinces.
Adil, the Afghan army colonel, insists his men can hold off the Taliban in Nangalam. But the narrow road connecting Nangalam to points of supply is riddled with buried mines and often controlled by Taliban checkpoints. He says he needs U.S. air support to safely deliver supplies such as food and ammunition.
"A lot of people in this area are helping them (militant groups)," Adil says.
Adil says he will be at a great disadvantage if U.S. helicopters are no longer circling during firefights. And removal of U.S. high-tech capacity means they can't keep up scans of the night landscape to spot impending assaults on their remote base here.
"One day we might get hit with 10 mortars, the next day only two or three, which for us would be a good day," he says.
The U.S. military recognizes the strain on the Afghan army as it make the transition from working with the U.S. forces to replacing them.
The strategy, according to Lt. Col. Jay Bullock, who leads the U.S. security adviser team at Nangalam, is to "try to find simple Afghan solutions" to the challenges they'll face once U.S. forces leave so they "can learn and grow on them."
The U.S. advisers are training Afghan soldiers to fire heavy artillery left behind by the Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s and lost thousands of troops in a nearly decade-long conflict. So far, the training is progressing slowly but steadily, the advisers say.
Sgt. Zaren, who like many Afghans here goes by one name, studies maps of the area around the base to calculate distances for effective fire.
"I just want to be able to fire the artillery to keep the Taliban away," Zaren says.
Maj. Christopher Thomas, spokesman for the 4th Brigade Combat Team 4th Infantry Division, says that the shortcomings of the Afghan forces in the east is a real concern. But, "there have been real improvements" in the Afghans' ability to be a self-sustaining fighting force.
"Right now the focus is putting the Afghans in the lead," Thomas says. "Let them get a bloody nose, but don't let them get a broken nose."
Capt. Hugh Miller, who fought along the Pech River during a 2009 deployment, says that if Afghan forces here can control the supply lines and provide effective firepower, they should be able to keep the enemy under control.
"Those are the two things that if they can get good at, we don't need to be here," Miller says.
Majidyar agrees with Miller's assessment but says there is something more that the Afghans must do that they have yet to do alone: root out and destroy militant havens.
"They (Afghan forces) aren't trained to do that, not equipped to do that and don't have the ability to do that," Majidyar says.
Mountain ranges here are full of caves and small villages where the Taliban and other groups stage ambushes on coalition forces. U.S. helicopters fly in and destroy militant havens.
The possibility of losing American backing worries some Afghan villagers.
Haji Noor Ullah, an elder from the village of Nangalam in the Pech River Valley, says facing the Taliban unassisted is a daunting prospect. He acknowledges that many Afghans here support the Taliban, but the many who do not might have to fall in line or risk violence. After all, that's been the model in years past.
"We will face a lot of troubles in the future," he said of the Taliban. "This is a very dangerous region."
There have been few serious attacks on Kalagush since the current unit of Americans arrived here in the spring, says the company commander, Capt. Adam Marsh. He agrees that the lull is "unusual" given the area's reputation for a heavy presence of militants.
"It's possible that they are just waiting for us to leave," he says.